Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Writing Nonfiction is a craft ...

While reading William Zinsser's "On Writing Well", I decided to look for daily reading (which is of course nonfiction) where the writer misses the point.

Along came our son's school payment and tuition policy. It was intimidating to say the least. I imagined someone reminding me (the parent) of various things in the tone of "Thou shalt not ...".

Here are some bullet points from the tuition policy that are worth highlighting:

  • The font looked dry and frankly, it was hard to read. I thought Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst should be a must read. Once again, I realized that keeping something simple is hard.
  • Writing something in all caps IS CONSIDERED OFFENSIVE, isn't it? Well, this howler was full of such sentences. They were supposed to be the reminders to parents. I was intimidated rather than being reminded of.
  • Use of strong verbs and constructs like "require", "non-proratable" (is that even a word?), "absolutely no", "overdue notice", "termination", "must be" usually in all caps made the situation worse.
  • The prose was not only difficult to read, it made no sense at times with such sentences as:
    • It is a mandatory that each child must have an Earthquake Kit. (It is mandatory that each child has an Earthquake Kit.)
    • If we do not receive the total balance due by the due date, it will be considered as late (exactly what will be considered as late?)
Maybe I am being a grumpy parent for this is a payment policy. But wait a minute, I do like the school, it's just that this letter was not pleasant to read.

Where has all the warmth, affection been lost? Why must the school policies be written in such legalese?

It is all Zinsser's fault :-).


Priya said...

Interesting. This has been on my mind a lot too, lately.

I worked as a coordinator for a group of undergraduate projects this summer. I had to send several emails every week, asking students to perform certain mandatory duties. Being a student myself and barely older than most of them, I found myself using such harsh/strong words to make sure that I was taken seriously. But thankfully, I re-read the drafts before sending them, and was put off by my own language. I thought, "How would I feel if I received such a harsh email early in the morning? More importantly, what would be my impression of the person sending it?" That prompted me to rethink and change my choice of words. Clear instructions can be given and rules can be explained in polite language. The message is still conveyed loud and clear. I felt my choice of strong words was just a unnecessary and desperate attempt to exercise my authority. They would be penalized for neglecting their duties eventually, so what is the point in me being harsh to them to start with? Do you think this was the case with your son's school authorities too? Maybe the harsh choice was words was a desperate attempt to try to get the parents do their work, else it would mean more work for school? Or maybe the parents haven't taken these rules seriously in the past?

KedarsThoughtsWork said...

It was nice to read your experience. But this email was the first one I received from them as my son is just starting there.